ROME — Roman Catholic bishops accused of covering up or failing to prevent the sexual abuse of children by priests will now be subject to judgment and discipline by a new Vatican tribunal, according to a plan approved Wednesday by Pope Francis.
The decision is a measure that abuse victims have urged for years. The Church has judicial procedures for judging priests accused of abuse, but until now bishops accused of negligence or cover-ups were rarely held accountable by the Church itself.
The tribunal will also deal with the backlog of cases involving sexual abuse, “which are still very numerous,” a Vatican official said Wednesday.
The issue of accountability has been under discussion for some time, said the Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. “As you see, it didn’t remain on paper,” he said.
The Vatican announced Wednesday that the pope had approved a series of proposals advanced by the committee that advises him on sexual abuse.
The proposals set out the procedures for examining complaints of abuse of office by bishops. The complaints will be first investigated by the congregations that the bishops belong to, and then will be judged by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which already reviews all cases of clergy accused of abusing minors.
A special new judicial section will be created within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “to judge bishops with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors,” a Vatican statement said. The pope will appoint a secretary to assist the prefect of the congregation with the tribunal and personnel will be hired, the Vatican said.
The announcement was made at the end of the 10th meeting of the Council of Cardinals, the group of high prelates that Francis created two years ago to advise him on a broad range of matters. The proposals were put to the council by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the current archbishop of Boston, who is part of the advisory council and president of the sexual abuse advisory commission. The advisers approved the proposals, as did the pope, who “authorized that sufficient resources will be provided for this purpose,” the Vatican said in a statement.
The procedures were proposed by a commission that Francis appointed early in his papacy to examine “best practices” for dealing with sexual abuse and suggest reforms. The group, called the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, includes victims of abuse by priests.
Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a support and advocacy group for victims, said in a statement that she suspected that the new panel “won’t make a difference” because it relies on Church officials to judge other Church officials. She said that a more effective move would be for the Church to support the reform of secular laws to strengthen the prosecution of those responsible for abuse.